The beginning of the 20th century was a time of high racial tension, but not everyone considered it to be tense. Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to Be Colored” encapsulates how she was a complex person with a complicated relationship with her identity of an African-American woman. In contrast, George Henderson’s essay “Race in America,” shows not only the tension of the racial issues in America but also puts them in historical context. In her last paragraph, Zora Neale Hurston presents an optimistic view of race in America that echoes the idea of a melting pot; unfortunately, this is not the case, and George Henderson shows the falsity of this belief. While acknowledging that discrimination exists, Hurston does not support the battle against it, finding it to be an act of self-pity. On the other hand, Henderson writes about the difficulties that ethnic minorities had in assimilating into the melting pot of America. His essay covers some of the possible reasons for discrimination and how it affects people that belong to minority groups. Unlike Hurston’s optimistic but dismissive essay, Henderson ends his essay with a call against bigotry and warns about the dangers of inaction.
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Bags Against the Wall
The idea that all humans are equal is a noble one; unfortunately, throughout history, people have shown that superficial differences can cloud our judgment. Every human on the planet comes from the same gene pool, and this fact gives a scientific basis to this idea. Perhaps it is not a surprise that both Hurston and Henderson represent it in their essays. Hurston ends her essay with a creative analogy about differently colored bags filled with similar contents. She writes: “Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless,” signifying that every person has the same value and shares similar experiences. This quote shows that she not only believes in equality but feels like she is already a part of the so-called melting pot. Coincidently, Henderson chose to open his essay with almost a mirror image of the same statement: “A much more practical dictum, and one that is often ignored throughout American history, is that all people belong to the same species.” But in the next line he shows that he does not share Hurston’s optimistic view of racial relations in the United States: “Unfortunately, too few individuals believe that the only race of any significance is the human race.” These quotes show that he believes that all people should be treated the same, but in opposition to Hurston, he does not consider it to be the current reality.
Perhaps Hurston’s view of race relations in America was formed by her childhood experiences. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the first self-governing all-black town to be incorporated into the United States. She describes how until she left the town at the age of thirteen, she never felt like she was different from white people. She describes her feelings like this: “I was not Zora of Orange County anymore. I was now a little colored girl.” For the first time in her life, Hurston felt that her ethnicity can separate her from others. This realization could have come sooner because the creation of this town was already a sign of how African-American people were not a part of the melting pot. To put this into historical context, Henderson takes German immigrants as an example: “The slowness of some of those immigrants, particularly Germans, to learn English, their tendency to live in enclaves, and their establishment of ethnic-language newspapers were friction points.”
Although this quote shows an example of Caucasian people feeling the struggle to assimilate into America, this experience describes how living in a segregated ethnic community is a friction point for the majority of the populace. Earlier in the paper, he writes: “English settlers and people from western and northern Europe had begun a process of ethnic assimilation that caused some writers to incorrectly describe the nation as melted into one ethnic group: American. In reality, non-Caucasian Americans were not included in the Eurocentric cultural pot.” Basing his statement on historical facts, Henderson does not believe that African Americans were included in the concept of the American ethnic group, while Hurston’s childhood experiences show that she grew up believing it to be the case. Before leaving town the only white people she saw were travelers that paid her no mind leading her to believe that she was considered to be equal in the eyes of the society, but the reality became apparent after she left her community.
One of the more controversial points of her essay is her reaction to discrimination. She is aware that discrimination is present in the American society but has no interest in fighting against it. Moreover, she is dismissive of the people who find themselves discriminated against: “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are so hurt about it.” Although not explicit, this might be a jab at her critics from the Harlem Renaissance movement who believed her to be utilizing racist stereotypes about black people to win favor from the white reading audience. This idea also aligns with her political beliefs against the government stepping in to help assimilate African-American people into society as a whole. She believed that “the world is to the strong” and that you do not need help from others to reach your goals.
Her sentiments find opposition in Henderson’s essay. To show why African-American citizens were not on equal footing with their Caucasian countrymen Henderson writes the following: “Nonwhite groups in the United States occupied specific low-status niches in the workplace, which in turn resulted in similarities among their members in such things as occupations, standard of living, level of education, place of residence, access to political power, and quality of health care.” He presents this as a reason for the formation of stereotypes and prejudices. These conditions create a vicious cycle where lack of assimilation leads to similarity in negative aspects of life, subsequently creating biases that impede further assimilation. In his last paragraph, Henderson warns the reader about emulating the oppressors: “That might makes right, that blood washes out injustices – these too are false strategies for achieving justice.” This quote almost directly argues against Hurston’s idea that “the world belongs to the strong.”
Hurston’s conservative beliefs become even more controversial when she writes about slavery. When reminded of the struggle of her grandparents she writes “Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful, and the patient is doing well, thank you.” By saying this, she means that slavery does not have any effect on her life. As seen before, she believes to have the same respect and opportunities that white people have but dismisses the existence of bigotry that still exists in America. What is more concerning is that she makes these statements at a very tumultuous time in American history. Henderson describes the situation at the time like this: “Beginning in the 1890s, immigrants from eastern and southern Europe were numerically dominant. That sent the stage for racist statements about inferior, darker people threatening the purity of the blond, blue-eyed Nordics or Aryans through miscegenation.” Hurston’s essay was written in 1928, at that time Ku Klux Klan was at its peak membership of 4 million members nationwide. Racial tension was extremely high and racist attitudes were prevalent across the country. Despite everything, she did not support the civil rights movement and argued for segregation, believing that people can be “separate but equal.” This belief could provide a different interpretation of the bag analogy. Each bag can represent a whole ethnic community, making the contents the people in it. Going by this interpretation people are still equal but are separated by their ethnic group. Both interpretations could be valid, but it certainly relates to her political leanings.
Sometimes inaction can be as dangerous as malicious action. Hurston was a very active person, worked a myriad of jobs, wrote more than 50 works and reached for greatness. But her philosophy of race relations was that of inaction. She describes her experience of discrimination like this: “Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?” In this quote, Hurston shows that she does not see discrimination as something that requires action. She dismisses it in a joking manner but does not see it as an offense against her. This is the only time she mentions discrimination as a factor in her life. Her belief in the melting pot idea is strong enough to blind herself from the adverse effects of discrimination. Although such dedication could be considered admirable, it is one of the main dangers that Henderson describes in his essay. About inaction, he writes “Inaction by people who witness oppressive acts is equally unacceptable.” He believes that people should try to stop oppression. Henderson acknowledges that people might be scared to challenge racism in community intuitions due to the dangers and outside pressure that can come with it, but it would be foolish to expect advances in civil rights without action from the people. Henderson agrees that the idea of the melting pot is positive but writes this: “Without equal opportunities, the melting pot will continue to be an unreachable mirage, a dream of equality deferred, for too many people of color.” What is important is that he writes this about the future, not the past. Even in the year 2017 racial biases still affect millions of people in America. During her time it was much worse, Hurston could have experienced many effects of discrimination, but her essay only mentions them in passing so we cannot know for sure.
The idea behind the American melting pot is positive and almost romantic. Zora Neale Hurston was so inspired by it that she believed it to be an already achieved goal. This belief led her to dismiss the civil rights movement and see segregation as a positive practice, but unfortunately for her, history has shown that segregation has never led to equality. After learning more about her political leanings, it is possible to interpret her analogy about bags as one that supports segregation. I do not see it as an accurate analogy for race in America.